Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Alexandra Berube: When Students Are Not Learning Letters

What to Do With a Student Who is Not Learning His Letters
When I was teaching kindergarten, I had one student who was far behind the others. In kindergarten, there is always a wide spectrum of skills, but he did not know almost any of his letters or his letter-sound relationships, and this is a skill that students are expected to have before entering kindergarten--maybe not completely mastered, but close to it. During the fall of kindergarten, I did everything I could to aid him in gaining familiarity with the visual appearance of letters, as well as the letter sounds. Here are two games that I used so that by January he had finally mastered these skills.
1. Twister
I took a twister board, and used masking tape to make large letters on the colored circles. I used four different letters and repeated them across the board, each letter being a distinct sound: P, A, T, and N. On the spinner, I wrote these letters as well. When you spin the spinner, I changed it to, "put your left foot on the letter that makes the sound 't,'" emphasizing the sound and the tongue placement in the mouth. I did this with a group of students, so the student who was struggling never felt left out, and whenever he didn't know the letter sound, the other students happily showed him. He didn't mind being a student who wasn't sure of the letter sound in this game, because they were all physically moving around, rather than a bunch of students all looking at a whiteboard and one student being singled out as the one who doesn't know the answer.
2. Foam Letters 
I have foam letters, about 2 inches in size, that I use for a number of activities. The letters are a great way to physically interpret the shape of letters, in order to gain more familiarity with the letter shapes and the sounds that they make. I had a file folder game, in which there was a trail that each game piece had to move down. On each square along the trail, there was a sticker that corresponded to an initial sound, so there was a sticker with a bee ('b'), dog ('d'), cat ('c'), etc. You would pull a foam letter out of a bag, and move your space to the corresponding sticker that started with that initial sound. So if you pulled a B out of the bag, you would move your game piece onto the sticker of the bee. In playing a group game like this, every student can get involved in sounding out the initial letter sounds, physically touching the letters, and seeing objects that begin with that letter. Any student who is struggling with these skills will see the other students modeling it, and get help from them on any letters they are still struggling with. All of the students want to help each other, so there is no sense (for the struggling child) of feeling like the student who can't get anything right.
After playing many games like these, and through regular private instruction, the student was able to make great strides in his letter recognition. Group games are a great way to allow the students who are struggling to watch other students model the skill for them and to get involved in the process of learning, rather than passively being shown the concepts.
Alexandra Berube, Managing Director
Boston Tutoring Services, LLC
(781) 248-4558

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Guest Post by Jo Marshall

Note from Jacquie: Jo Marshall’s books offer parents and teachers interesting and understandable stories that teach about climate change, extinction, and so much more. Whether sitting by the fire listening to your child read or discussing Twig stories in class, you will find Jo Marshall’s series well worth your time.

Story Behind the Story.
As a literacy tutor for seven years in my daughter’s elementary school in Snohomish, Washington I engaged children in many ways to heighten their interest in reading.  I often used fantasy books because I found they sometimes encouraged a child to try a little harder to understand the words and thus, the story.  It was around 3rd grade my daughter began learning about climate change and its impacts on our region, the Pacific Northwest. Naturally she became distressed over the possible extinction of many species such as the alpine pika, spirit bear (Kermode bear), salamanders, and birds due to a warmer climate.  Ecosystems in our fragile world of old growth forests and glacier-covered peaks certainly were in jeopardy. Changing old light bulbs to energy efficient ones became a crusade for the 3rd graders in her class, yet still the global climate crisis was overwhelming for them and disturbing. It wasn’t a great leap to use fantasy to calm some of that anxiety.  My daughter and I created a collection of stories about tiny, stick creatures called Twigs confronted with a changing climate in their old growth forest.  We focused their battles on specific impacts near our home – millions of bark beetle-infested trees, shrinking glaciers, record floods, extensive wildfires, and the consequent wildlife and plant adaptations.
The first Twig Stories novel – Leaf  & the Rushing Waters is about a young, boyish Twig named Leaf whose old tree home is inundated by a glacial outburst flood.  His family is trapped high in the Old Seeder’s knothole.  Leaf and his Twig friend Rustle set off to find a goliath beaver named Slapper, who can build a mighty dam to block the raging torrent.  What I love about Twig Stories is the opportunity to blend science fact into fantasy.  The idea that Slapper and his colony could build such an enormous and effective dam comes from an actual beaver dam in Alberta, Canada.  It is twice the length of Hoover Dam and can be seen from space!

The key message in ‘Rushing Waters’ is beavers are natural control agents to mitigate extreme flood and drought.  Many wildlife nonprofits have made it clear beaver dams are effective tools for flood control, if allowed to flourish.  In many areas, beavers were trapped and hunted to nonexistence, so beaver advocates are dedicated to the reintroduction of beavers into those areas now suffering from disastrous flood and drought due to climate shifts.  In spite of those who believe beavers are a nuisance, many nonprofit groups and researchers have shown that the impact of drought is actually reduced since beaver dams allow a controlled, consistent stream of filtered water during long periods of hot weather.  These periods are growing longer and hotter all the time.

Another critical theme in ‘Rushing Waters’ is we must protect endangered animals.  Beaver dams help create healthy ponds and wetlands, which save threatened species such as salamanders, frogs, birds, and small mammals from extinction.  This benefits large predators, too.  Nonprofit organizations with passionate beaver defenders such as The Lands Council (, Martinez (, and Beavers: Wetlands and Wildlife ( have developed excellent methods to allow communities to coexist with beavers in their parks and private lands.  If necessary, humane relocation of nuisance beavers should be utilized rather than trapping or killing these remarkable, helpful creatures.  This is a very positive message for young students.

It’s been a privilege to have expert guidance for Twig Stories from wildlife biologists, professors, and researchers.  Through their influence the fantastic adventures of Twigs may actually encourage scientific thought.  Perhaps, a child may devise new solutions as to how we could protect our natural world – with all its diversity of species – in the face of a radically changing climate.  Perhaps a Twig might help a young child calm their apprehension, and see beyond the inevitability of climate change.  Instead they may focus on local habitats, and realize we can save many species from extinction, one ecosystem at a time.  After all, we must ‘stick together’ on our journey into climate crisis.

Jo Marshall holds no special credentials in climate change research, biology, or botany.  Her manuscripts were reviewed by the conservation nonprofits’ founders and officers mentioned in this article, and their guidance followed.  She earned a BA in German Language and Literature from the University of Maryland, Europe in West Berlin.  Jo hopes you will recommend her other two Twig Stories novels to your students and children: Leaf & the Sky of Fire and Leaf & the Long Ice.  Please visit her website, and her author page,

Friday, June 14, 2013

The A-Ha of Learning

The A-Ha of Learning:

Sometimes students can’t accomplish a task because they have never thought of a way to complete the assignment. Sometimes a student may accomplish a task without knowing the steps they went through to complete the task. Teaching inner dialog, or helping the student create a thinking script for actions, often creates thinking connections. An interior script provides a thinking bank for making connections to which the student can refer the next time they have a similar task to accomplish.

Sometimes producing the A- Ha is nothing more than explaining something that seems to be obvious, but which a student has somehow not learned or been taught. For example, a sixth grade student, once referred to this author for consultation, was reading on a second grade level. She was a bright, likeable young woman who obviously had the capacity to be a good reader. Her teacher believed she had the information she needed to read. Year after year she’d been taught the phonetic sounds of letters, and tested 100% on sounding them out.

She had been able to learn some words by sight; a skill that helped her maintain belief in herself up to that point. Her reading problem remained a mystery until I began talking to her about how she went about the task of decoding words phonetically—and discovered she didn’t. The concept of blending phonetic sounds into whole words had never been explicitly explained. While other students in her class were able to learn this skill without an explanation, this student did not make that connection. When taught blending, using a multisensory approach, she easily grasped the concept of blending. Within a few months she was reading at grade level.

It is important to think aloud when teaching skills and concepts. Explain the reasoning behind decisions and ask students to do the same. When students can tell the instructor the thinking behind their answer(s), it is possible to know if they complete a process by rote or they really understand.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Reading Development: Putting Standards in Perspective

When teaching Reading it is important to recognize that students learn in different ways and in synchronization with their own personal growth and development. Reading development, as with all human development, is at an individual’s own pace. The stages of reading development can be used as general reference guidelines. In no instance should guidelines become reasons to judge a student’s ability to learn nor should they be a reason to hold a student to curriculum that is no longer challenging.

As part of the normal growth process, children pass through stages of reading development. Advancement through these stages may differ from child to child. For example, a family may have one child who begins reading at age four while another does not begin to read until age six. Parents may be surprised to notice that both children are reading quite well at age eight. In other words, a slow beginning simply may indicate the child is not yet ready to read and nothing more.

The quality of reading is not measured by how soon a child begins to read but how well he or she reads when ready.

Reading development is enhanced when parents, family members, and friends read to children. It also helps if children observe their parents and other important adults reading and discussing the written word. Having books of all types around the house tells children that reading is important.           

It is always a good idea to make sure that each student has a vision and physical examination before beginning instruction. Most doctors have a list of resources on hand to assist parents and caregivers in connecting with community specialists and school agencies if glasses or other support is required.

Birth to Kindergarten 
Children learn to understand the spoken word, enjoy having books read to them, recognize letters, and perhaps write their name.  They may also pretend to read books aloud and talk about the pictures.

Kindergarten and Grade One
Children learn the names of the letters and the concept of sound/symbol and symbol/sound relationships. They learn linguistic patterning, the blending of
sounds, and recognize certain sight words.

Grades Two and Three
Children enhance and expand decoding skills, learn advanced skills for obtaining meaning from texts, and increase reading fluency.

Grades Four through Eight
Children learn information that goes beyond their life experiences, they increase their basic vocabulary, and they apply that vocabulary to new reading and writing experiences.

Grades Nine through Twelve
Students develop complex language structures, interpret multiple points of view, learn advanced vocabulary, and construct their own meanings  through analysis and synthesis.

Excerpt from: How to Use Rhoades to Reading 2nd Edition (2011)